South Park defies answering that question neatly, because while it largely returns to its stand-alone episodic roots, it still keeps certain plot threads from previous seasons alive. For example, Cartman is still together with his girlfriend Heidi. You would think she'd have grown tired of being with such a callous human being, but in a strange twist, he's actually fed up with her. Not that she's done anything wrong, mind you. She just wants attention and for them to share things with each other, but as you can imagine, that blip is so far off Cartman's radar that it may as well be frozen within the ice on Europa… but is all as it seems?
And yes, Mr. Garrison is still a walking-talking parody of Donald Trump. The show's take seems to be that although the president knows that he's in over his head, he's still willing to fan the flames of hatred than stabilize relationships that are barely afloat in hostile territory. An early episode features President Garrison daring Kim Jong-un to unleash hell on the United States, South Park specifically. In another episode the president is advised by Paul Ryan, Mitch McConnell, and Mike Pence that sticking with the ‘eff them all to death' ideology - which is the slogan that earned Garrison his seat in the White House - has generated lots of ill will among the American people. Instead of relenting, Garrison is determined as ever to fulfill his campaign promise. Eventually, the ex-school teacher starts popping up around South Park to inquire about his approval ratings, and the results are scary.
These plot threads don't serve much purpose, sadly. Cartman is a unique character to say the least, and watching him attempt to survive a serious relationship was worth more than a few laughs… but it felt like a distraction. As far as the ‘Garrison as Trump' thing, as hilarious as it once was, it's overstayed its welcome. An entire season was already spent dissecting Trump and how he handles sensitive topics and issues, so the show's co-creators had nothing new to say. Sure, they can justify the ongoing nature of this storyline because Trump is constantly in the headlines, but that doesn't mean he should remain a focus. If there's any argument that cements serialization needing to move away from South Park, look no further than President Garrison.
But despite such issues, South Park's twenty-first season is still (mostly) a welcome return to form. The show's best episodes have always been when the kids are just being kids, and we get that in the episode titled Franchise Prequel. In it, The Coon and Friends attempt to sell their hero-verse for both streaming and cinematic consumption, but hit a major roadblock when people take tabloid-esque news about them on Facebook at face value. This episode serves as a prequel to the latest South Park video game, by the way - which is hilariously called The Fractured But Whole - but it doesn't shove any advertising down your throat. In fact, I'd wager most people wouldn't realize it lead directly into a video game unless they've played it or follow industry news.
Other episodic highlights include Cartman finding a strange sense of warmth and companionship from Amazon's Alexa, Stan's being forced to exacerbate South Park's opioid problem, a witch (among other things) delays Cartman's trick-or-treat plans, PC Principal finds love with the new vice-principal, and Kyle comes to realize just how wrong Terrance and Philip are in the era of social wakening. My personal favorite is the episode dedicated to Randy, though. He's routinely one of the most hilarious characters on the show, and that's no exception here as he unwittingly begins a relationship with a Native American man by kissing him. Only Randy, right?
All in all, South Park's twenty-first season, while not without issues, is pretty strong. Trey and Matt tackling real world and pop culture topics isn't as biting as it used to be, but they still know how to dole out the laughs. As much as I thought I'd miss serialization, I now think the show is stronger without it, and can't wait to see what's to come in seasons twenty-two and beyond.
Presented in a resolution of 1080p via the AVC codec (1.78:1), South Park - The Complete Twenty First Season is as exceptional as one would expect for its simplistic animation style, which specifically emulates construction paper cutouts. As a result, most of the colors on-screen are as bold as can be. Truly, the color palette on display is nothing short of magnificent. If you've never seen this show on Blu-ray because you thought the upgrade would be minimal, the color saturation alone is worth it. Furthermore, edges are well-defined ninety-nine percent of the time (you might spot a little aliasing if you have the eyes of a hawk), you'll see miniscule details in the computer animated construction paper, and the contrast mostly looks good. The opening intro text looks gray and white as opposed to black and white, but blacks don't appear faded during the episodes. There's also a little minor banding here and nothing, but nothing super distracting. Overall, this is as solid a presentation a South Park fan could hope for.
South Park isn't made with constant surround in mind, but this season gives us plenty which benefits from having a 5.1 Dolby TrueHD track. Music comes through all five channels feeling alive. The LFE is balanced so your sub will kick, but not overpower the rest of the mix. When the action picks up, the surrounds come out of hiding and feels like a natural extension of your listening area. For an animated show with such a quick production schedule, I can respect the precision and dynamic range that's present. And speaking of action, the dialogue is always the prioritized and never lost. After all is said and done, audiophiles should find this Blu-ray to be a substantial upgrade over the DVD in the audio department.
-Mini-Commentaries: When I last reviewed South Park, which was season nineteen, Trey and Matt veered away from doing mini-commentaries for each episode, and instead did a single commentary about the season in its entirety. It was both refreshing and disappointing at the same time, but rest assured, that the old mini-commentary system is back in play here. These have always been great to listen to, and the same can be said for the offerings for season twenty one.
-#Socialcommentary: As sort of a ‘live tweeting' experience, comments will pop-up on-screen throughout each episode. It's a nifty feature, even if it no longer makes contextual sense (this feature was born for the season 17 release, in which Cartman uses the social media app, Shitter).
South Park: The Complete Twenty-First Season has its flaws, but Trey Parker and Matt Stone are far from running out of gas. This collection of episodes brings the program back to its singular episodic roots, at least for the most part, and it brings a more consistent string of laughs throughout the season as a result. The only thing I'd change is that if they're going to have one or two running plot threads, they make sure they're worth the time investment, both in their writing and our viewing. As far as this release is concerned, the A/V presentation is about as good as you'd expect for this show, although the supplemental package is light. Highly recommended.